President Joe Biden seemingly sidestepped a question Monday about whether he supports teachers returning to schools to provide students with in-person instruction.
Biden has signaled his intent to push for the reopening of most K-8 schools within the first 100 days of his presidency. He’s signed executive orders to that end and his nominee for secretary of the Department of Education has endorsed the president’s effort.
But then came Monday, and the battle for Biden became clear.
According to a report from The New York Times, the majority of the members of the Chicago Teachers Union — which serves the third-largest school district in the country — voted Sunday to defy an order to return to in-person instruction Monday morning. The move came as the district wanted some 10,000 teachers and other staffers to return to school with the plan to resume in-person education for K-8 students Feb. 1.
Similar pushback is happening in places like Montclair, New Jersey, and Bellevue, Washington, and Fairfax, Virginia. Some administrators have, according to The Times, begun suggesting school as we once knew it may not be realized until the next school year.
The emerging reality is, if Biden wants to reopen America’s schools, he’s going to have to go to bat against teachers’ unions. Even CNN’s Jake Tapper noted the fact that Biden “has yet to acknowledge the reality that some of these disputes are health officials saying schools should be re-opened and teachers’ unions saying, ‘No way.’”
Rory Cooper, a Fairfax parent and a political strategist, wrote in a column for The Washington Post that schools in his city should reopen, or teachers should stop receiving vaccinations from COVID-19.
“There is simply no common-sense explanation for vaccinating teachers ahead of other high-risk groups if they refuse to return to full-time in-person learning,” he wrote. “The simple truth is that the Fairfax school system wants the benefits of heroism without taking a heroic action.”
Biden, though, signaled on Monday he’s unwilling — at least so far — to stand up to the teachers’ unions in cities around the country.
When asked point-blank whether he supports reopening classrooms and about the defiance of the Chicago Teachers Union, the president dodged the inquiry.
“I believe we should make school classrooms safe and secure for the students, for the teachers, and for the help that’s in those schools maintaining the facilities,” said Biden. “We need new ventilation systems in those schools. We need testing for people coming in and out of the classes. We need testing for teachers as well as students, and we need the capacity, the capacity to know that in fact the circumstance in the school is safe and secure for everyone.”
He went on to repeatedly push for more “sanitizing” and argued the teachers he knows “want to work.”
“They just want to work in a safe environment and as safe as we can rationally make it,” the president continued. “We can do that and we should be able to open every school, kindergarten through 8th grade, if in fact we administer these tests. It will have the added advantage, I might add, of putting millions of people back to work. All those mothers and fathers at home taking care of their children rather than going to work, even when they can work, they’re not able to do it unless they have the luxury of working distance-wise like many of us do.”
Biden’s comments — as well as the pushback against reopening from teachers’ unions — comes as places like the Clark County School District in Nevada are facing devastating outcomes from prolonged school closures.
A new report from The Times revealed there were 18 suicides in the nine months that schools in the CCSD were closed for in-person learning. In response to the sobering data, the city, which is home to the fifth-largest school district in the country, is working to reopen its classrooms as “quickly as possible.”
“When we started to see the uptick in children taking their lives, we knew it wasn’t just the COVID numbers we need to look at anymore,” said Jesus Jara, superintendent of CCSD. “We have to find a way to put our hands on our kids, to see them, to look at them. They’ve got to start seeing some movement, some hope.”
“We are not only in the midst of a health crisis,” he added, “but we are being challenged with a mental health crisis and an academic crisis.”
The numbers coming from Clark County are not unique. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in August of last year that one-quarter of young adults in the U.S. have thought about suicide since the pandemic began. Additionally, 25.5% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 seriously contemplated suicide within 30 days of the CDC study. And among those between the ages of 25 and 44, 16% thought about taking their lives.